Essay: The Golden Days of Bowdlerization by Peter Dabbene

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On a recent viewing of the Back to the Future trilogy, I was struck by Marty McFly’s potty mouth. My kids are 8 and 9 years old, and rewatching the movies I saw as a child—E.T., Big, The Goonies, etc.—I’m not sure if I just forgot about the cursing, or if perhaps my memories of those movies were formed via television-edited versions. With my kids (surprisingly) still innocent enough to consider “damn” a bad word, I found myself longing for the broadcast TV versions of these films, complete with badly dubbed substitute pejoratives instead of the original curses. Once, people paid a premium to see movies without such editing. Now, I might happily pay for those edits—but does that option exist?

As it turns out, there are plenty of ways to block content en masse from underage eyes—from Google’s SafeSearch to the V-chip built into televisions. But several companies—among them, ClearPlay and TVGuardian—make money by providing edited versions of movies.

ClearPlay’s website offers an example of the technology at work: a scene from The Matrix is shown pre- and post-ClearPlay. In the latter version, a violent scene is shortened, and instead of “big dead ass” a bad guy says “big dead (silence)”.  We still see his lips moving, but the sound of the offensive word has been removed; presumably, many lip readers will remain offended. In an age of wonders, I have to say, the technology seemed a little… basic, like having someone on the remote control who was really, really quick with the mute button.

TVGuardian works by monitoring closed caption text (whether it’s visible on the screen or not). Reading ahead, each word is checked against a dictionary of more than 150 offensive words and phrases, and when a foul word or phrase is detected, the device mutes the offensive language. Like the others, TVGuardian offers different settings—from “Tolerant”, which eliminates only the most offensive words, to “Strict”, which catches “virtually every foul word you can imagine.” While the “Strict” setting represents a massive expansion of George Carlin’s original “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”,  it might also be seen as a shot across the bow in a dirty-word arms race, challenging lazy but filthy-minded writers to get creative.

If you want to be able to mute Rhett Butler’s final word in Gone With The Wind, either of these services might do the trick. But I was looking for something more. Missing from these offerings was the dual benefit of films edited for television:  not only having curses edited out, but also substituting much funnier (and often nonsensical) utterances. Once you hear “motherfucker” a few thousand times, it loses its shock value, and let’s face it, shock value is why it’s there. Profanity is a placeholder, used because it gets more attention than traditional, “appropriate” vocabulary. If the President dropped the F-bomb during a State of the Union address, all of those half-asleep people in the audience would surely perk right up. But if you’re even a semi-regular moviegoer, that word—and most other curses—has lost any ability to shock. On the other hand, when you hear “Forget me? Forget you, you mother forgetter!” (from a TV edit of the film Casino), you can’t help but sit up and take notice.

Since at least some of the available retail editing services utilize actual people to screen and edit the movies they offer, why is no one offering TV-style substitutions?  Maybe there are copyright issues involved with adding new lines to a movie rather than just muting small bits of dialogue, but a creative editor could make mediocre movies much more enjoyable for everyone.

There aren’t many people, percentage-wise, who don’t have access to pay TV of one kind or another (cable, satellite, Netflix, etc.), and the film aficionado’s mantra has always been that uncut and unedited is better. But I would bet that for the majority of viewers, the appeal of uncut movies has less to do with being true to the director’s original intent, and more to do with the perennial appeal of forbidden fruit. What stands out on re-viewing the Back to the Future series is just how gratuitous the cursing is; there are several culturally iconic moments in those films, but Marty repeatedly whining “Holy shit!” isn’t one of them. In indicating shock or surprise, is “Holy shit!” really that different than “Holy cow!”? Or, if that might be offensive to those of Indian descent, why not use “What the heck!” It’s a moment in a film, it passes, and the story continues.

Much more entertaining are the artistic minds that create lines like “I have had it with these monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” (from the TV-edited version of Snakes on a Plane).

The demand for this kind of creative television editing is dying, unfortunately. Fewer people rely on their local network TV affiliates to see these movies, so one has to question whether this art form (yes, I’ll call it that) will be able to survive.

For the record, I’m not a prude; I often curse, myself (not in the self-hating way that line, as read aloud, might imply). But please, Hollywood… if you’re going to curse, make it count, and make it entertaining; otherwise, you’ll just be a bunch of moral-function slugs-in-ditches*.

*Edited as if for television.

Peter Dabbene

Peter Dabbene recording session 2016

Peter Dabbene has written the graphic novels Ark and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus’ Demons. His poetry has been published in many literary journals, and collected in the photo book Optimism. His latest books are Spamming the SpammersMore Spamming the Spammers, and The End of Spamming the Spammers. He writes a monthly column for theHamilton Post newspaper, in addition to ongoing blog and book review assignments for Foreword Reviews. His website is


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Author Photo by MurphinatorX Photography

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1 comments on “Essay: The Golden Days of Bowdlerization by Peter Dabbene”

  1. I enjoyed Peter’s article on so called strong language …I’ve bleated about this myself. But there’s a point to make too about the difference between cleaning up the future and falsifying the past. Digital technology allows us to airbrush out much that is now considered unacceptable in what went on in that foreign country, thus distorting our picture of it…and the significance of our journeys from it.

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